What is this?
I don’t have too much formal background in any of art history, criticism, or practice. When I visit museums that contain primarily (for example) ancient, Renaissance, Impressionist, even some abstract expressionist art, I have a sense of what the artist is trying to do. But for many color field and contemporary pieces, I often don’t even know where to begin with interpretation, other than “this looks cool.”
My current strategy is to look at color field and other heavily abstracted pieces as artistic experiments in pinpointing the effects of various visual features on human perception; for example, an artist might depict the same scene in both one-point perspective as well as a skewed perspective and observe the different ways viewers react to each piece’s different realizations of depth.
In many cases, these artists are also heavily interested in science, mathematics and art criticism, and they publish books about what their art is attempting to explore or demonstrate. I do agree with the generally accepted tenet that authorial intentionality is not the basis or the ultimate “correct interpretation” for an artwork, but I find it incredibly helpful when artists explicitly mention their goals for their work. Sometimes I even disagree with their conclusions, but I probably wouldn’t have even thought about those ideas if they did not describe them to begin with.
The contemporary art gallery, non-academia equivalent of writing critical theory seems to be displaying a binder full of interviews with the artist. I think this is a good first step, but the interviews usually talk about very general, overarching goals and don’t mention specific features in specific pieces.
This document is intended to outline, with specificity, the major goals I had for my recent work, chaleur perdue/Lost Warmth.
This is not a “work within a work” (like the Commentary in Pale Fire). Everything I say here, including this sentence, should be taken literally and not as a metaphor, rhetorically, or sarcastically. Because I am really tired right now, this is also going to be somewhat stream-of-consciousness without much editing, and so, poorly organized.
I will not attempt to explain everything that’s included (probably not even a tenth of the creative process), just my basic intentions (and non-intentions).
Themes and concepts
At its core, chaleur perdue is a work about trying to understand human distance, which in this work, involves physical distance, linguistic distance, emotional distance, cultural difference, and temporal distance (among others).
This attempt ends up resulting in failure, so chaleur perdue instead shows the process of the attempt, i.e., the various ways I’ve thought about writing, drawing, or even thinking about distance, and why those attempts have failed.
This idea of artistic ineptitude is not so original, but non-artists usually have a hard time understanding this idea. In chaleur perdue, the games force the viewer to try and make art themselves. Since many of the games are rigged to be impossible to win (or where winning is not even a well-defined concept), the viewer gets an idea of what it means to be unable to express themselves. The goal is to induce frustration, confusion, and possibly, anger, primarily by subverting expectation.
- The intended audience is English speakers, so the French-language title is possibly offputting. The English-language translation below has no deeper meaning other than to try to make it more accessible.
- The title sets the tone of the work to be relatively pessimistic, signalling that this won’t really be a “happy love story.”
- This was not intentional, but apparently chaleur perdue refers to heat waste in a mechanical engine. This somewhat comical distance between my intended meaning and possibly the meaning native French speakers might first understand suggests I don’t really know French too well, which ends up being important later.
- The fact that the addressee, “L.,” is mostly anonymous and genderless, as well as the fact that many of the memories are hard to place in a specific location or time, is intended to both give this work generality, so viewers might be able to apply it to their own life, as well as to reinforce the idea that this is not a work about romance, but rather a work about the process of art.
- The headings are pretty allusion-heavy: Proust, Five Centimeters per Second, Rilke, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and The Joke all are referenced extremely quickly, which sets the tone of the piece to be ironic when I say that L. is my only inspiration. This is also foreshadows the idea of artistic ineptitude being (inadequately) compensated for with constant, shallow allusions and relying on other’s thoughts.
- I don’t think the soundtrack was the best choice for this work. I am not too knowledgeable about music, but I picked De Profundis for its tone of austere (possibly depressing/resigned) contemplation.
- Each elegy consists of a few quotes from the Duino Elegies, a memory, and a color game, that all relate to each other.
- Any mistakes in the poetry transcription or line numbering are not intentional.
- The lack of an entry for the Third Elegy is only because I wasn’t able to come up with any relevant commentary on it, and not intended to have any deeper meaning, although this itself could be another datapoint for metaartistic ineptitude.
- Games in chaleur perdue are not scored, and there isn’t really any feedback as to how the viewer did. It is the viewer’s responsibility to consider a game as done and to continue. This reflects most situations in real life where though you see the results of your actions in a certain scenario, you have no idea if those actions were the right ones, or the optimal ones, or even if there are optimal ones, or if regardless of what you do, the situation is predetermined to end in failure.
- Every game heavily involves elements of randomness. Every single color is randomly generated, and several other components of gameplay are randomly generated too (detailed later). This ends up creating different experiences for different viewers, and even for the same viewer upon refreshing the page, and leads to different interpretations due to the specific randomness that that viewer receives. This again adds to the generality of chaleur perdue, as well as the pessimistic “All roads lead to failure” idea.
- The poor mobile support and lack of responsiveness is not intentional, and only due to my lack of a phone to test it on and inexperience with CSS.
- Links to other works of mine, as well as external resources, as well as allusions to more-famous works are all crucial components of chaleur perdue. For me, many of my thoughts are reflections on others’ works; even this work is primarily mediated through Rilke poetry. I want to make clear that art does not happen in a vacuum and this artwork is in conversation with other art. I also hope to encourage viewers to explore the concepts I mention in more depth by reading those linked works.
The First Elegy
- Subtitle sets the location as a raining Rome, but in French, which is somewhat odd.
- RNG produces both a random gradient, that interpolates between a random hue interval, a random saturation interval, and a random lightness interval (restricted to ensure differentiability).
- The idea behind the game is that the notion of a “correct location” is not well-defined. Most viewers place the square in the position that completes the gradient, but several don’t, citing that that would produce beauty, and “beauty is the beginning of terror.” Essentially, the fact that I met L. was a random coincidence. Perhaps if I visited another country instead of Italy, I would be writing another story about another person.
- Anecdotally, and not intentionally, if the viewer does want to complete the gradient, sometimes it is not so obvious where a square is supposed to go until they actually move it there.
- There is no significance to the fact that the control handles are separated from the gradient, and that there is no drag-and-drop functionality. This was a technical decision made for simplicity.
- There is no significance to the specific wording “MOVE LEFT.”
The Second Elegy
- The subtitle refers to L.’s description of Bramante’s Il Tempietto, in the San Pietro in Montorio, near Trastevere.
- The idea behind this section is that even if we are aware of our emotions, it is often impossible to express them in words or in any medium you can send to another person (or even to yourself at a later time). The longer you wait to do so, the more your initial emotion fades, and the farther you will be from ever recapturing it.
- Lovers, in this case, do not “know how.”
- Our hearts exceed our capabilities of communication. This idea is explored in the last line of the linked poem, Love in the Time of Cryptography, with the double meaning of the word qualified.
- The game is constructed so the viewer can get close to the reference color but can never actually reach it. This is done by setting the reference color to have red value (in the game, this color is randomly chosen from red, blue, and green) of a certain value, and setting the viewer-controlled square’s red value slightly lower. The sliders control the other two colors, blue and green in this case. For most viewers, it is not quite obvious why this is impossible to win, since it is not so obvious, for example, that two similar greens are separated only by a small amount of red value.
- The intent, as stated, is to induce frustration. Since this cannot be completed, the viewer necessarily has to give up and continue to the next elegy without closure.
- It is also possible for the viewer to become incredibly suspicious of the work itself, for having essentially lied to the viewer, which creates a sort of unreliable-narrator effect.
- The labeling of the colors as AGLIO and OLIO is somewhat arbitrary. I just needed two names that do not really have any relevance to the game. Italian foods seemed appropriate. This was not intentional, but you could think of it like the classic pasta dish aglio e olio: these ingredients alone do suffice, but without parsley you feel as if you’re missing something but you are not really sure what.
The Fourth Elegy
- This one is less obvious than the previous two. The idea is summarized in the second verse quoted: although we are able to see how our emotions are influenced and contrast with those around us, that doesn’t really help us understand our own emotions.
- In a sense, this is a degradation of the scenario from the Second Elegy, where we knew our emotions intuitively and struggled to put them into words. Here, we’re not even sure what those emotions are.
- A heuristic for our own emotions could be the average of our close friends and relationships. Here color is a metaphor for emotion. But the very notion of “middle” is ill-defined (refer to the linked poem, Icarus Moderated), which makes this game also impossible.
- I am not too fond of this game. It falls a bit flat, although that could easily be argued to work in the argument’s favor.
- The memory refers to how, in the absence of awareness of our own emotions, one way that I cope with it is to kind of steal other artist’s (primarily poets) emotions and try to convince myself that I feel that way too, since then at least I have the comfort of knowing what I feel. The linked images are from Kiki’s Delivery Service, and convey the idea of plagiarism, inadequacy, and failure.
The Fifth Elegy
- The subtitle refers to the MAXXI museum. The linked post hopefully adds some levity to the viewer’s experience. I really did not intend for this work to be so depressing, I just wanted to be honest. And humor/wordplay are definitely part of my experiences.
- The connection between the three parts here is more tenuous. The idea here is that for some people who have goals (whether it is in academics, entrepreneurship, sports, etc.), their entire identity becomes wrapped up in advancing their excellence in that area. Failure is incredibly demotivating and crushing.
- In the memory, that goal is one of romantic connection, but it also is more generally about human connection and friendship. Even if you initially succeed, this can be terrifying particularly if you have anxiety: what happens next? what if you fail? what if this is all an illusion or a trick?
- “The Minimal Proper Amount Of Contemplation At A Museum” is a wry joke also intended for levity, not serious artistic criticism.
- The game is supposed to instill some sense of anxiety in the viewer who desperately tries to connect all the squares, though this is pretty much impossible. The metaphor here is, squares are individuals, colors are their unique characteristics and interests, and connecting squares is the same as human connection. Increasing color saturation represents self-actualization. Although everyone eventually dies, only those who have succeeded in some meaningful connection can persist.
- It is intentional that squares can connect to each other even after they die; this occurs whenever someone compares and contrasts the work of two thinkers, even after they die.
- It is not intentional for the relative darkness and lightness of the colors to be visible before the game begins.
The Sixth Elegy
- Here I draw a contrast between people who are focused on a single principle or goal versus. those who have many interests. Hue represents a particular interest, saturation represents excellence.
- The border was intended to be a gradually increasing arc, that completes the circle at maximum saturation, though I went for the dashed border alternative for technical simplicity. I think it still works to serve the same purpose.
- Although the game is a decent and clear representation of my intention, it is not really a game or particularly fun, so I’m not overly happy with it. However, it is interesting to compare your heartrate when playing each side.
The Seventh Elegy
- Starting from here, chaleur perdue gets more theoretical. As Rilke indicates, the only way we can persist empirical objects is through first, transforming them into some cerebral structure, like words.
- But such transformations are mostly arbitrary, and viewed differently by different people, and always lose detail. There is a sense of forlornness looking at a photograph you took of a location; you do not feel the same way you did when you were actually at that location (see Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).
- I ask the question, are our thoughts and emotions induced only by original, real-world phenomena? To what extent does our linguistic and cerebral post-processing change what we see?
- Continuing this idea, the spinning of the wheel is of course an illusion. It only appears that way because of the particular transformations (the increase in hue every timestep) applied. Sometimes, the transformations necessary for a particular object are just too complex, or occur too rapidly for us to understand.
- That it is pretty much impossible to click the wheel when it really is spinning the fastest is a manifestation of that idea.
- Since the speed tracks a sinewave, it should be possible for someone to memorize the time elapse between peaks and get close to clicking at the fastest speed by counting in their head. In practice, this proves to be very difficult.
The Eighth Elegy
- I am particularly proud of this section. The basic analogy is Open:three dimensions::Not-Open:two dimensions, kind of like in Flatland.
- The linked article is a pop-famous mathematical theorem about the nature of random walks in n dimensions. I interpret 2-dimensions as a cross-section of the HSL colorspace model, and 3-dimensions as the HSL colorspace model in its entirety. The relative darkness of the cross-section is intentional. I am also aware that the abstraction is a leaky one, the theorem requires the space to be infinitely extended in all directions to apply, though I relax this requirement with artistic license. Although, I would be very interested if someone was able to create an infinite colorspace that provides a similar effect.
- Distance here is an unsurmountable distance; we are in entirely different worlds by virtue of our personalities.
- The game is a simulation of a random walk through colorspaces. Although the viewer is directed to direct the path with the position of the cursor, the position doesn’t really do anything; it just makes random moves regardless, which, if the viewer realizes, is a reflection of their lack of free will and efficacy.
- Now, the game is to try and coerce the simulation back to the origin, but in general this will be obscured by other blocks, so the viewer does not even know when they are at “home.”
- Technical information: this was written in WebGL.
- The particular features of the initial viewpoint have no deeper meaning other than to provide a nice iso perspective.
- The specific divisioning of the cylinder has no deeper meaning other than to split it up into many pieces without getting laggy.
- The lack of pan controls has no deeper meaning.
- The lack of manual rotation controls in the z direction has no deeper meaning.
- I originally intended for all the visited blocks to be somewhat transparent, so it would be easier to track the head of the path, but I had a lot of difficulty getting this to display correctly with WebGL. Nevertheless, I am happy with the final result.
The Ninth Elegy
- The subtitle refers to the famous spiral stairway in the Palazzo Barberini.
- We return to the idea of turning physical objects into words.
- The memory is perhaps the first time the viewer realizes L. is primarily French-speaking, and explains the large amount of French language in chaleur perdue.
- The memory showcases our linguistic distance: how is it possible to carry on a meaningful conversation if the two participants do not even know the word for something as simple as bees in each others’ language? It also adds levity.
- The game is primarily inspired by the linked Robert Hass poem The Problem of Describing Color. The idea is that no matter how carefully the first player words their description, people will always have different connotations and understandings of words particular to their unique life experiences. In all likelihood the chosen colors do not match.
- It is even more frustrating because not only do the colors probably not match, in this game, you can’t even verify this fact: the endscreen does not display either of the colors. This reflects how it is in real life; you can never be sure if your understandings of a concept like passion, or love, or presence is shared.
- I believe the endscreen is probably incredibly disappointing to the players, and possibly also boring. This is intended. However, I do include a link to a version of the same game where the players do see each others choices for the color, ABSINTHEISH. If you allow yourselves to describe colors with words happiness, or a university, or your smile in the morning, I think ABSINTHEISH is an excellent way to understand more about a person’s thought process and personality.
The Tenth Elegy
- I am also happy with how this section came out. I think it is somewhat self explanatory as well. At the very least, I think the process (chaleur perdue itself) is also interesting, perhaps not romantically, but as a revelation of the artist’s psychology.
- I just want to stress again that the entire work is in the ironic mode (sorry, hayden white), including the last two paragraphs. If this seems too easily resolved or the artist seems to be lying to eirself because that is all there is left to do, those things are probably true.
- I also introduce the final metaphor of colors as representing memories.
- The game is intended to be incredibly difficult and possibly frustrating. But I also think it can be quite fun if you do not worry too much about producing something of great quality. It is interesting to note whether your playstyle is to create a minimalist piece with few divisions, to carefully outline your desired shape with intricate and thoughtfully-placed divisions, and whether you care about the particular colors you use. You can use the merge tool to effectively keep picking a new color until you get the one you want, though this will take forever. Do you spend the time to do that?
- The border of the memory box is constructed as follows. I take the total number of different colors the viewer saw throughout their playthrough; this includes the randomly generated colors, as well as the colors they picked themselves. Then I ceiling this to the number needed to make a complete border around the center image (possibly making the squares smaller if necessary), and then create each square by randomly selecting the seen colors.
- This was not intended, but it is interesting to think about your memories as being a frame for your picture.
- The center image is the one you created in the game in The Tenth Elegy.
- I think this is a cool way to share your experiences with chaleur perdue with your friends. I imagine many people will put in a decent amount of work into the picture.
I hope this has been useful as a starting point. There is a lot more that went into chaleur perdue that I have not mentioned, so if you are interested in the concepts I talked about, try a careful replay!
Thanks for playing.